Posted on April 17th, 2006 31 comments
206 North Sarah Street, Central West End
St. Louis, MO
An underground Italian restaurant that was a loosely kept aboveground secret is closing at the end of April. In the middle of a mostly-residential block, in the basement of an apartment building, Rossino’s (under various names) has been in business since the mid-1940s. Originally known for their pizza, over time it became a place for city movers-and-shakers to lunch, lovers to hide away, hardcore regulars to roost and an exquisite jewel to discover.
The freshly painted, off-hand “shack” facade is already at odds with the dense urbanity of the neighborhood. Going down the stairs from street level (above) sets the stage for the time warp about to be entered.
The “lobby” (above) is crammed with antiques both retired and in-use. It’s also relatively well lit because of outside light seeping in. This is the last time you will see any form of blank space, or your feet.
Abruptly, the ceilings lower, as does anyone over 6 feet. You’re bombarded by stuff nailed, propped and stuffed onto every surface, and one has only taken 2 steps away from the lobby. Then, BOOM, you can literally crash into the bar (featuring a signed photo of Tom Cruise’s first wife Mimi Rogers, as well as a less-crazy Tom with Mama Rossino, above). Bumping and stumbling is de rigueur because there are hardly any light bulbs; candlelight is it. You know that moment when you come from bright outdoors into a darker room and your eyes need a few moments to adjust? Underground at Rossino’s, your eyes stay in that suspended moment of disorientation. The wait staff is well-practiced in playing seeing eye-dog, leading the blind through narrow alleys, and politely ignoring the clumsiness and exclamations of those dealing with Alice In Wonderland alternate reality.
This was my maiden voyage to the institution that was retiring. I’d never known of the place, which is shocking considering all the Italian-descent, city-dwelling people in my life. What brought me here was my mother and my friend, Bob Dielman. Both of them are 70-years old, and Rossino’s was a regular hang out for them during the late 50s/early 60s. Back then, the main calling card was, yes, the pizza, but more importantly, they had a 3 o’clock liquor license. When the other places closed, Rossino’s was the place to go for more booze, or to sober up. When they heard of Rossino’s imminent retirement, they wanted to take one last nostalgic trip to relive fond memories and to say goodbye.
Both of them recognized the bar and the main dining room (above). They peered into their past as the hostess walked us right past it, and Mom and Bob slightly freaked. As of the mid-1960s, that bar and dining area was the extent of Rossino’s. Somewhere in the following decades, a wall was knocked down and the restaurant oozed into the rest of the basement. As you proceed, the ceilings get lower, it gets even darker, and the bric-a-brac piles higher.
Above is a fair representation of the cozy, netherworld ambience, as interpreted by a non-flash digital camera pushed to maximum capabilities. It was an exercise for me to decipher the menu (which I folded up and stashed in my purse as a keepsake) by candlelight, and my eyes are pretty good. My 70-year old companions? They didn’t even bother reading it; they simply ordered from “ancient” memory: lasagna for Bob, spaghetti and meatballs for Mom.
Both were thrilled that it was just as good as they remembered it. I had the carbonara, and it was truly amazing (both the cream sauce and the bacon perfectly prepared and balanced). Later, when I paid the bill, I was stunned at how cheap our meals and drinks were. It was as if having a 5-star Italian meal in 1962! That’s the moment my heart broke: I had just fallen in love with this glowing ember, an eccentric, sentimental oddball oasis inside a tear in the space/time continuum… and this love affair could only last for 2 weeks. This is how I genuinely felt after 1.5 hours. What about those who’ve felt this way for decades? One would buckle under the weight of their sadness.
Speaking of buckles, what will become of the very old-school sanitary napkin dispenser (above) in the ladies room? What will become of 60-years worth of memorabilia, antiques and junk that hold up the concrete walls? If there was light, you could stare at just one corner and never see everything hiding there.
Needing to know what was being missed, I finally let the camera flash strobe blindly into the vast darkness, and only later was I able to see what we couldn’t see right in front of our faces. In the shot above, that’s only a 5-foot sqaure piece of Rossino’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. Multiply that by 10,000 other items that never see the light of day, soaked in warm memories and appetizing aromas… that it will all be dislodged and uprooted is just… heartbreaking, really.
Second-generation owner/ manager Nancy Zimmerman has been at the restaurant since her early teens. She now wants to retire. It couldn’t have been an easy decision to make, for not only is her entire life in that basement, but also her family, past and present. The sadness of loyal patrons’ just adds to the hugeness of her decision, and the strength of conviction to do the proper thing. She’s given everyone fair warning and plenty of chances to say a fond farewell. She and her family have contributed something lovely and worthwhile to the history of St. Louis. Thank you.
31 Responses to “Rossino’s Italian Restaurant”
minitru April 17th, 2006 at 9:16 PM
Fuck! I loved that place. I had an affair with a married woman there. How much do they want for it?
steve scariano April 18th, 2006 at 4:48 AM
Once, while waiting for a ladyfriend’s bartending shift to end, I sat at the bar in wide-eyed wonder alongside Joe Torre and Bob Gibson as they waited for their to go pizza. This was during Torre’s tenure as Cardinals’ manager, and Gibby was his pitching coach. They held court and talked baseball with the half dozen of us at the bar. I was totally freaked, as Gibby was my favorite player when I was a kid, but boy was it a treat hearing those two let their hair down.
Great piece Toby, and I’m shocked to hear that was your first visit. Rossino’s was easily one of the best “first date” joints in town, and an even better choice for aclandestine rendezvous.
Anonymous April 18th, 2006 at 8:18 AM
I, too, only recently ‘discovered’ Rossino’s, as my new workplace is right around the corner.
About the time I could finally see what we were eating, it was time to go.
Cool note about Torre and Gibby, Steve!
Kiehlt April 18th, 2006 at 3:46 PM
I am so sad to see it go. Julie and I went on many dates there before we got married (since it was so cheap of course) just like Julie’s parents did when they were dating. And our kids have eatten there numerous times. They think it’s so cool with the low ceilings that Dad hits his head on everytime and all the stuff on the walls. It will be greatly missed by our family.
Thanks Toby, for this entry. I have many many fond memories of this place. My parents went on some of there first dates here in the ’60s. I will truly miss this wonderful restaurant.
Anonymous April 23rd, 2006 at 6:28 PM
I just hate it. This place should be here forever. My husband and girlfriends have all shared great meals, times, in such a wonderful Restaurant with all the neat things to look at while your there, each visit you saw something different, the lovely mirrors, pictures, antiques everywhere. The food was the best and you could not beat the service. It will be greatly miss by all.
stlwords May 3rd, 2006 at 9:29 AM
Rossino’s is still open for a couple weeks or so in May. The owner has extended the closing date for a couple more weeks so everybody gets a chance for one last pizza and salad.
Brad Stokes June 4th, 2006 at 6:21 PM
Obviously I am one of thousands of people who really appreciated Rossino’s. I lived in St Louis for a year in 1983 and visited there with dates several times. In 2005 I took some business associates there for lunch. I had told them that with an entree you received a free glass of wine, but told them I had not been there in nearly 20 years. When I asked our waiter about the wine, he said jokingly, “We haven’t done that for 20 years”. We all got a good laugh! My wife and daughter happened to go in during April and I was saddened to hear it was closing. There just are not that kind of restaraunts left! I feel I have said goodbye to an old friend.
GREG ALEXANDER July 13th, 2007 at 10:45 PM
I live in Chicago now and MUST go to Rossino’s to get “real” thin crust pizza. I died when I found out they closed, it was already July and too late for me. I was fortunate enough to have asked the owner a few years back what the secret was to their pizza because it always had a flavor different from all others. She told me they use only Provolone cheese, no mozzarella. I guess I’ll have to bake it myself now – This is really sad. And that deep dish crap everyone loves in Chicago ( at least the tourists ) is the worst. Thank you for many happy memories with friends at a great little restaurant. GREG A.
Anonymous February 4th, 2008 at 7:22 PM
I am dying for the Rossino’s chicken parm. plate. I NEED the recipe. I miss that place so much!! I have had such great memories there with my husband and all my fiends. We had every birthday dinner there that I could remember. My husband was in love with the pizza. The atmosphere was one in a million.
We miss you Rossino’s!!
Shannon & Randy
carl rossino June 25th, 2008 at 7:15 PM
hahahahahhaaha thats my last name niggggas im from NEW JERSEY
Steven April 5th, 2010 at 4:27 PM
Truly a St. Louis Icon, Rossino’s Pizza. I personally worked there during college and ate there every night. Loved every minute of it. I love this place, the people, the Zimmerman’s; Rory, his mom and the rest of the family. This was my first real job and what crazy place. I saw so many things here. Something I will never forget. I still think about making a pizza for myself when the night was over. I still think fondly of when I was asked to wait tables for a special group after hours. I felt like I was in a Scorsese film. They would tip me out at the end of the game. What a time in my life. Thanks Rossino’s for being part of my life on the planet! Missu.
I was planning a romantic visit back to St. Louis from Florida. Rossino’s was on my stop list and when I did a search for the phone number so I could set up reservations I found it will be closed.
Nice to see all the comments and memories. thank you all for the wonderful notes. I miss the place too and of course the food………
P.S. Steven you were a great worker and I am glad you have fond memories of the place, albeit surreal………
Michael Caprisi October 3rd, 2010 at 10:24 PM
RORY, WHERE IS YOUR “HOT” SISTER NOW……….
Oh how I miss going to Rossino’s. Going on Friday nights for pizza was a staple for my friends and I. Loved their Lasagna too. Friday nights aren’t the same anymore. WE MISS YOU!
This breaks my heart, Rossino’s was my favorite restaurant when I was a kid and growing up. I used to love how dark it was, and how when you first walked in there was this bell thing and you would pull the handle and it would make a loud noise. My parents would let me pull it twice every time we’d go there, once before our dinner, and once after. Man, they had some amazing food there. I miss it so much. Does anyone know if Rossino’s has been purchased or is it for sale orrr? thanks!
hi all glad to see your still thinking about us. we sold the building and 3 surrounding parking lots, and the family decided to not sell the restaurant and let it go out on top under our family name. i have always wanted to see Rossinos continue but was out voted by the family but I think I could talk them into it for the right people. leave a message at Playgirl2b@aol.com if you are serious.
Marilou July 5th, 2012 at 4:06 AM
Hi Rory, long time no see… So sad to hear that Rossino’s was closed-I loved that place and the food…. Happy memories there since the night that my girlfriend (Kendra) brought me there while she worked.
I had looked for your restaurant a few times whenever we’d get back to St Louis, but could never find it again, although I did see one somewhere else, but wasn’t sure that was yours.
Take care and hope that you and the family are all doing well.
Christopher Bingham July 23rd, 2012 at 4:11 AM
So sorry to read Rossino’s has closed. I remember so well going there after a Blues game and on a date back in the 70s. It was such a warm, unique experience that I remember it fondly nearly forty years after leaving St. Louis. Hope the family can find a trusted operator to open a similar venue with some class and character, and hopefully in the city somewhere. The suburbs don’t offer the same ambiance.
Denny Kempen August 18th, 2012 at 4:00 PM
Sorry to hear it colosed. i use to go there in the late 60’s with my best friend and he was killed in Viet Nam. I miss hitting my head on the pipes to sit down! It was a classic place. Sad Very sad !
Denny Kempen August 18th, 2012 at 4:01 PM
Sorry to hear it colosed. i use to go there in the late 60’s with my best friend and he was killed in Viet Nam. I miss hitting my head on the pipes to sit down! It was a classic place. Sad to see it go!
JetChopperDude January 10th, 2013 at 6:59 AM
Personally, I have the same poignant feelings and memories, closely paralleling the earlier entries posted above, before and after the April-2006 closing.
Who would have thought that the closing of a restaurant, an eatery…, would bring a tear to the eye! I was truly saddened.
Haven’t been there in many years, what with working-living out of the USA; my unwanted divorce…, etc. At first, I couldn’t remember the name, but remembered the “feelings” of that wonderful little restaurant.
I scanned the telephone Yellow Pages (nothing). Went through the business pages of the phone book (again, nada). Finally Googled it with, “Italian restaurants St. Louis below street level”!! SUCCESS…, then I read the sobering reality. My heart sunk….
A reopening would be great, but alas, with a different location (everything), would you ever be able to recapture the ambience of years past. To me, that amazing restaurant was unique in ways that allude literal description. It really IS sad. The end of memories, never to be renewed, or made.
The very best to the family, thanking them for the warm memories you have given soooo many patrons-employees, in the past. You are missed……
Had many great evenings there with parents, and then with the girlfriend I eventually married over 25 years ago. We moved around the country a lot, but always returned on every visit to STL, and took my kids when they were young until their teenage years, and they loved that special restaurant as well. Best pizza in town. Could be chilly at the table by that big A/C unit! Loved taking my tall friends down there. Fantastic memories of great dinners. I really, really miss it. Definitely a shame it closed, and bigger shame it never re-opened.
Kristin April 11th, 2013 at 7:26 PM
Precious memories of Rocinnos in my head tonight. I would give anything to have a salad (anchovy dressing) and ANY thin crust pizza and a glass of wine while remembering the warmth and joy of past friendships and good times.
Thanks for the memories.
Theresa Eldridge April 20th, 2013 at 11:34 PM
I’m heart broken. We spent so much time at this wonderful place. Could you publish a cookbook??? Please…seriously, please. You could not beat the simple delicious salad, chicken pram, ohhhh the eggplant pram, the pizza…Hell, every item on the menu was amazingly delicious. Seriously, I’m so sad we will never have the chance to take our children to this magical little place. I wish the family well and thank you for the years of wonderful food….but seriously, make a cookbook or just share some recipes for those of us that were addicted to your amazing food and crave it!!! God bless!
Steve Stinnett May 6th, 2013 at 10:46 AM
When I heard that Rossino’s had closed I couldn’t believe it. I started going there in 1970 and went every year untill 2005. If I ever had a friend visiting st louis I alwys took them to “R”, that was what st louis was all about. I don’t think they ever forgot it either.
I always remember the one waiter a tall guy he was one of the decor.
Chris Hengen September 29th, 2013 at 10:47 AM
I went to St Louis Univ for 6 years, and had many great meals, and many incredible pizzas at Rossinos. No other pizza has ever had the cheese taste that their pizzas had. Always loved looking at all of the old pictures on the walls. Reading this article and looking at the pictures brought back a lot of great memories. Made me happy and sad! I managed Bogarts down the street for a couple of years. Moved back to Canada in 1980, and was back once to St Louis and Rossinos. Going back later this week for Cardinals playoff games with my Dad and brother and was going to take them there for the best pizza anywhere, ever! Sad to hear that the place is closed. Thanks for the great memories!
judi carr October 26th, 2013 at 9:53 PM
This was the best restaurant for pizza-thin crust and a beer when I was at SLU from 1959-1963. Was affordable and fun. Sorry it is closed.
Ron Whitaker April 29th, 2014 at 12:34 AM
I am so sorry to see you close. I ate there about twice a week when I was in Pharmacy School during the 50’s. Your pizza was the best I have ever eaten. I have eaten there a few times since,( every time I came back to St.Louis for a visit ). You will be missed.
P.S. You may remember you called me El Rancho